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Illegal border crossings fell sharply in January, U.S. figures show

Migrants wait to be processed after crossing the border on Jan. 6 near Yuma, Ariz. (Gregory Bull/AP)
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Tighter restrictions applied by the Biden administration against migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti along the southern border last month led to a precipitous drop in the number of people from those countries crossing into the United States illegally, according to three administration officials and preliminary data.

Illegal crossings by migrants from the four countries were down more than 95 percent, preliminary figures obtained by The Washington Post show.

Overall, the number of migrants stopped along the Mexico border last month fell to about 150,000, down from the record-high 251,487 tallied in December, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data and officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss enforcement figures not yet finalized.

On Jan. 5, Biden officials announced moves to quickly expel 30,000 migrants per month from those four nations back across the border to Mexico, expanding their use of the Title 42 public health policy enforced since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Biden administration offset the enforcement push by a major expansion of programs known as parole allowing migrants from the four nations to enter the United States legally if they have a U.S. sponsor and complete an online application.

Biden officials are offering up to 30,000 migrants per month a two-year permit to live and work in the United States under the terms of the program, and say such legal pathways are successfully steering migrants toward a safer and more orderly option than the one offered by predacious smugglers.

About 6,000 Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans have been allowed into the United States through the new parole program since Jan. 5, according to the latest figures. A similar program offered to Venezuelans has resulted in more than 15,000 entering the country since it was launched in October, data show.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promoted the administration’s carrot-and-stick approach in a speech Monday in Miami. “This is the model that this administration is committed to implementing to build safe and lawful pathways for individuals who are seeking humanitarian relief in the United States,” he said.

Mayorkas’s remarks came after a Group of 20 states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) filed suit in U.S. district court on Jan. 24 saying Biden’s expanded use of parole authority is unlawful. The plaintiffs say parole authority is meant to be used sparingly on a case-by-case basis, not as a way to an alternative visa system.

“This unlawful amnesty program, which will invite hundreds of thousands of aliens into the U.S. every year, will only make this immigration crisis drastically worse,” Paxton said in a statement.

Biden officials say the enforcement component of the Jan. 5 deal with Mexico was contingent on a U.S. commitment to accept more migrants from the four nations through legal channels. If the Republicans’ lawsuit successfully blocks the parole expansion, administration officials say, it would imperil the tighter border controls and potentially unleash another migration surge.

“It is incomprehensible to me why this lawsuit was filed when in fact it addresses the challenge that we have been encountering at our southern border,” Mayorkas said in his speech. “Why these states would oppose an enforcement program that is proving successful is beyond my comprehension.”

Biden border plans expands use of 1950s-era "parole" powers

The threat of expulsion to Mexico appears to have produced a dramatic swing since December, when thousands of Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans were crossing per day into El Paso, maxing out shelter space and leaving families sleeping on the streets in the bitter cold.

U.S. border agents encountered as many as 3,500 illegal entries per day by migrants from those countries before the Christmas holidays. That number has fallen into double-digits recently, with U.S. agents arresting fewer than 50 migrants daily from those countries several times during the past week, officials said.

January has historically been a slower month for illegal crossings, as some migrants forestall their journeys until after the holidays and professional smugglers take time off. January was the least-busy month of 2022, during a year when CBP officials made nearly 2.4 million arrests, eclipsing the previous high of 1.7 million set during Biden’s first year in office.

The record migration surge from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba during the past 18 months has presented Homeland Security officials with significant logistical challenges. All three nations are under U.S. economic sanctions, and strained diplomatic relations with their governments severely limiting DHS authorities’ ability to carry out deportation flights.

Mexican authorities have invited migrants who are expelled from the United States to seek humanitarian protection in Mexico, but they also have more latitude to make deportations to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.

One Cuban asylum-seeker who arrived in the United States through Mexico and was sent back across the border last month told the Univision network that Mexican authorities promptly placed him on a deportation flight to Havana.

Moisés Izquierdo, 44, told the network his advice to other would-be border-crossers trying to reach the United States was “don’t even try it.”

“Don’t put yourself in the hands of a coyote,” he told the network, using the term for a smuggler, in a statement that echoed the Biden administration’s public messaging campaigns.

U.S. officials continue to face numerous other challenges at the southern border. Mexican nationals once more rank at the top of illegal border crossers, with many seeking to evade capture and returning repeatedly if they are expelled under Title 42. CBP is detaining record numbers of migrants from Colombia, Ecuador and other nations whose citizens are generally not accepted by Mexican authorities under the public health policy.

In recent years, migration levels have typically rebounded during the spring months when seasonal hiring picks up on U.S. farms and in other industries.

The White House announced Monday that it plans to allow the public health emergency declaration to lapse in May, eliminating the legal basis for the Title 42 expulsion policy that the administration is relying on as its primary enforcement tool along the Mexico border.